Tag Archives: MustSee

All In: The Fight for Democracy

[5 stars]

The single, most important film this year so far. Whether you grew up during these fights or not. Whether you think you know all about it or not. Whether you want to hear the message or not:

See it. Get Angry. Vote.

Learn from it. Hear it. Vote.

Basically: VOTE

In case it isn’t obvious,  directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, with the help of Jack Youngelson’s script, created a compelling presentation of Stacey Abrams gubernatorial run, while providing a historical and contextual framework for the history of voting in America. It’s a call to action that cannot be denied.

Honestly, I wept and gritted my teeth openly…and I knew most of it going in.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

[4.5 stars]

Simple, calm, honest, and heartbreaking. Writer/director Eliza Hittman follows up her breakout Beach Rats by tackling a young woman’s challenge, making it an interesting companion piece even if they aren’t at all related.

Newcomers Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder take us on a journey that suggests more than it explains their lives. It is like the worst and best kind of voyeuristic observation. We never feel we’re intruding, but we also get to follow these young women where we shouldn’t.

This isn’t an easy film to describe. Basically, you should see it. It is a window into a world many will not have experienced, and an exposé of reality that far too many others have. That is done as art only heightens the effect and allows for some moments that will impact you unexpectedly…not because they are horrific in themselves, but because they are honest and imply ever so much more.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always Poster

Black-ish (the unaired episode)

[3.5 stars] (but still a must-see)

Sitcoms rarely wow. In fact, I can’t watch most of what’s on offer anymore as they are so painfully silly. And don’t get me started on laugh-tracks. But every once in a while a series, or a particular show in that series, stands out.

“Please, Baby, Please,” marking the first year of 45’s presidency, was never aired after it was recorded in 2017. The reasons are still shrouded in a bit of mystery, but it seems generally true that it was an act of cowardice on the part of ABC. But it was recently made available as Season 4, episode 99 of Black-ish.

There is no question that this is a clunky and preachy diatribe. But it isn’t an untrue or unfair one, and it has a core of powerful reality and truth…with just a smidge of hope…that makes it worth every moment.

This episode should be seen, especially with the election coming; and one where the first woman of color is on the slate. It is a vote for sanity and a political act…and not a little bit an act of curiosity. But when your government is sending federal troops into states as a political move, and working hard to make sure the upcoming vote will not have credibility, and when they are purposefully hobbling the census to better retain power…and all of this during a pandemic, it is a vote that is sorely needed.

[Addendum: An interview with writer/creator Kenya Barris about the shelving of the episode.]

black-ish Poster

Dark (series 3 – finale)

[5 stars]

I’ve been talking up Dark for a while now. And having rewatched it from front to back again, I plan on continuing.

The series starts as a fairly standard mystery and then rapidly evolves. By episode 1.3 you have some sense of the complexity. By the end of the first series your brain is likely bleeding. In the second series it only gets more complex and convoluted and yet…. either it was all planned brilliantly or retcon’d seamlessly because on every major point it holds together. There are some minor bits and pieces that are left hanging or glossed (and yes, I look at you episode 2.4). And I admit there is one choice in the series 2 finale that makes me grind my teeth as it wasn’t necessary for plot, but simply contrived to get a visual and then they got stuck with it. Then, at the end of series 2, you’ve taken a hard left turn.

But the big events, the important confluences, all work as one.

And here we are at the completion of the tale, series 3; it makes the first two runs look simple…in fact, the penultimate episode left me exhausted. More importantly, the finale brings it all together in a fair way, given the story that’s been laid out before us–the clues are all there. Even the title finally gets an explanation.

Ultimately, this is one of the best attempts to both philosophically attack and support a deterministic universe. There are characters on both sides fighting to defend and break it. And not a one of them is telling the truth. We know that early on, but never actually find solid ground till the end, when their intentions are truly revealed. Sure the science is, at best, fantastical at times, but not all of it. Some is well-established theory, and the mix of the two allows you to swallow the conceits in full; even when they get it horribly wrong.

One of the aspects that makes this series work is their, mostly, amazing casting. Only This is Us has come close to the need and quality of finding actors to portray characters at different ages. And, honestly, Dark has done it better. Some of the actors you will swear are the same person, just aged. It helps tremendously with keeping track of the story and the credibility of the plot. They also weren’t afraid to try new ways to work with the audience visually. Each series experiments with new visual cues and approaches to help you navigate the insanity. Series 3 even uses more than one approach over the eight episodes.

Dark lives comfortably with some of the great time-travel tales of the last few decades, including Timecrimes, Primer, Edge of Tomorrow, Predestination, Doctor Who (Blink), Looper, Safety Not GuaranteedWatchmen, The Magicians (ep 5.6: Oops..I did it Again), Babylon 5, and even (despite its flaws) Terminator: Genisys. If you haven’t tackled it yet, make the time…and watch it from start to finish in a straight go (no more than two episodes a night). There are so many subtle and wonderful moments and echos that will get missed if you stretch it out too long.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

[4.5 stars]

City of Angels is a richly appointed and complex tale of murder, espionage, love, and religious devotion (as well as religious hypocrisy), with a good helping of prejudice and capitalism thrown in.  It is also topical and historically well done, resulting in a beautiful and brutal series.

Natalie Dormer (Patient Zero) is a revelation in 3 of the 4 characters (she really can’t pull of the white Mexican well). It is obvious why she took the role. Likewise Nathan Lane (Carrie Pilby), who gets to play to all his strengths from wry humor to deep pathos. Bouncing between them is Daniel Zovatto (Lady Bird), who serves as the main spine for the series. From the opening scene, he is the man in the balance trapped between outcomes. But until the moments, he is stuck in the gray. We watch him struggle to be part of some world, any world, where he fits and can live with the choices. And it is a compelling tension.

A number of driving roles keep it all moving as well. Rory Kinnear (Years and Years), in particular, has a many layered story to navigate. Through him we see duality in detail: humanity and the inhumane. It is done without any nod and wink, nor any apology. And Michael Gladis (Extant) provides a suitably vile and craven political climber in a world that he wants to crush before it crushes him. Even Zovatto’s screen brother, Johnathan Nieves (See You Yesterday), brings in a set of layers born of hopelessness and anger. It’s a little one-note, but it doesn’t lack credibility even when his ultimate choices are a little forced. There are some nice treats along the way too, like Patty Lupone (Last Christmas) in concert and Brian Dennehy’s (The Seagull) final effort before his passing in April (though he may have other footage still to come in a couple projects).

This time in LA, the lead-up to WWII, has been often visited, but rarely with the kind of scope this series pulls off. Usually you get hyper-focused stories, like Zoot Suit, or Chinatown, or any number of mystery/suspense/noir stories that pull apart the high and low of society, or the gay and straight. City of Angels navigates all of these aspects, and then some. And it does so in a way that makes sense and shows the connecting threads. For that alone, it is worth seeing.

However, while I loved seeing a different take on the era, I have to admit that I was also somewhat upset that it removed primary responsibility for the horrors from the humans. Dormer’s character, as the sweet-tongued devil in many guises, becomes the main impetus for all the action. She really does much more than talk to make it all happen, which is where the trouble lies.

In addition, there is a challenge with the plot decisions that bothered me. While the presentation of how LGBTQ people were treated and viewed in the era is relatively, sadly accurate, the series also has no LGBTQ character who isn’t, for lack of a better word, evil. Not just tragic, but actively doing wrong. That feels a shame in a story as big as this and one that has so many levels of detail. And particularly wrong during Pride Month. It isn’t that the characters aren’t human, they just all feel irredeemable.

But, ultimately, this show is so on target for the current situation across the country, the awakening and mobilization of frustration and anger, that it’s uncanny and upsetting. All in an intentional way. City of Angels marks a brick in the path that leads to its own historical volatile times, but it is also a reflection of the powder keg that is today. It insists we look not only at the past but at how we want to navigate the future. And it also forces us to admit the perils of not paying attention to those lessons. Despite its slightly rushed wrap-up and some of the dangling threads, this is a definite must-see for our times and, should these times move on, a must-see for the historic scope and lessons of the past; and yes it’s entertaining as well.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

V for Vendetta (redux x)

[4.5 stars]

Still relevant…and increasingly prescient.

I’ve seen this film a dozen times or more. It never fails to amaze and recharge me. It provided me hope and entertainment when it first came out and, in the midst of the horrors of what has happened over the last few years, it provides me some glimmer of hope now.

But, I admit, this rewatch was particularly spooky; pandemics, economic crisis, social unrest, and authoritarian governments out of control all map eerily to today (even the death counts). With the nationwide marches rising up,  it is even more on point. However, this is a movie about taking back power and making government again afraid of its people, not the other way around. It’s a message we all need to hear and believe right now.

Hugo Weaving (Mortal Engines) delivers that message with an amazingly subtle performance, and without ever once showing his face. Natalie Portman (Vox Lux), as the unexpected heroine, was divisive in the role, but some of that was the foreshortened story in the Wachowski’s (Sense8) adaptation. The film is also loaded with UK talent: Stephen Rea (Greta), John Hurt (Jackie), Stephen Fry (The Hippopotamus), Rupert Graves (War of the Worlds), Roger Allam (Endeavour), Sinéad Cusack (Marcella), and Tim Pigott-Smith (Victoria & Abdul).

I recognize it isn’t a perfect movie (particularly regarding its lack of diversity). However, if you need an escape and a boost, it’s hard to beat this movie and its message as the delivery method. The end still practically brings me to my feet shouting in joy and with tears in my eyes as it did the first time. And, just let me say, I’d love to see one of our internet billionaires make the ending of this flick come true…that could be an amazing use of some of their windfall, and a way to unite a splintered populace.

V for Vendetta

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

[4.5 stars]

In her follow-up to Nannette, Gadsby once-again defies tradition and description. It isn’t quite the power-blast of Nannette, but it is a brilliantly structured piece of comedy. She starts exactly where she needs to and drags you laughing through to the end, pulling everything together as she does.

Whether or not you liked Nannette, you should see Douglas. It has its serious comments, but it is very much a comedy special put together with deft hands and a wickedly sharp mind.

[But if you haven’t seen Nannette as well, you should. It is a different animal, but it is a brilliantly, near-perfect, piece of stage craft.  It isn’t comedy, per se, but it is funny, and cathartic, and a wonder to behold]

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

Fleabag (National Theatre Live)

[4.5 stars]

It would be hard to find someone who isn’t aware of Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Killing Eve) these days. She is the dame of the moment, and with good reason. She is a multi-hyphenate talent with a brutal sense of humor and the acting and writing ability to bring it to life.

This National Theatre performance is what spawned the amazing Fleabag series that made her a household name. It is a tight 85 minutes that tracks to a lot of the series, but is definitely its own story. It will make you guffaw and flinch, like the series, but this is a bit darker.

And, to top it off, all the proceeds for this incredibly well-priced rental go to supporting COVID relief. Make the time and queue this up. You can’t beat it for the price ($5) nor the entertainment.

1917

[4 stars]

Some movies are just great rides, and this is one of them. What Sam Mendes (Spectre) has accomplished with his planning and directing is a movie miracle from a technological point of view. And, in this case, that’s enough to recommend it. The script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), however, isn’t quite on the same level; it is more than a little forced. These aspects make 1917 an interesting duality.

There is no question that that is worth seeing and, in particular, worth seeing on the big screen. It pulls off what Birdman tried to but was too coy and self-conscious to pull off: making the one-shot completely invisible as a device. From the moment it begins, 1917 makes you walk alongside the young soldiers about to traverse a special kind of hell. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded By the Light) are perfect choices to lead our trip…they aren’t very recognizable, allowing them to be more believable. In fact, their lack of celebrity only heightens other faces we do recognize such as Andrew Scott (Lear), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Current War), and Richard Madden (Rocketman). It is a purposeful effect, lending power to these small parts and diminishing even more the pawns we are following.

But here’s the tricky thing… their mission and the course it takes, in order to be dramatic, feels directed or manipulated. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen all the time, but you have a good sense since we’ve been on these rides before, just on more highly edited trips. MacKay, in particular, is simply a vessel for us. He is a complete cypher until the very end of his particular journey and then, well, it just isn’t enough.

1917 is a tchnologlcal monster in the way Gravity was in its year. In addition, it has an uncomfortable resonance, particularly now as we sit (yet again) on the brink of war. But despite all that, it isn’t a great story…which makes it only a solid movie and not a great one. Still, it will wow enough voters to get a Best Picture nomination and it may even sway enough to win. Certainly the editing, cinematography, and sound are worthy of notice. Directing as well, given the Herculean effort it took to pull it all off. But the story just isn’t there for me.

Part of my sense of the emotional gap is because of They Shall Not Grow Old, which never really focused on a single soldier, but which managed to create a more emotional journey for me. Part of it was the difference in scale. MacKay and Chapman spend most of their time in No Man’s Land. This sets them in an empty landscape surrounded by the debris of war but not in the midst of it. Those moments come, but the scope of it all was lost by the narrow focus, even as the beginning and end try to bring it back in. Though I fully admit the tension of the journey (one of many soldiers like these had to make) leaves you a wet rag as the credits role; physically, if not entirely emotionally, exhausted.

See this on big screen with big sound (Dolby definitely did this film justice on that level). 1917 is late to the race this year, but it is one you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next month or so.

1917

The Irishman

[4.5 stars]

Some films are good by themselves and some acquire additional greatness in the context of an entire opus. Martin Scrosese’s Irishman is definitely in the latter group; a masterpiece of epic storytelling that stands alone, but is also a reflection of his entire past. It presents a huge canvas and expansive story that is, at its heart (and to its success), a very simple tale. But as a piece of his entire canon, Irishman resonates both with humor and across time. It takes the harsh and frenetic world of Goodfellas and blends it with with tense normality of Raging Bull to come up with charged banality that occasionally explodes with moments, but is simply a tale of life.

Scorsese’s shaping and moulding of Steven Zaillian’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) script is a wonder to watch. The script disappears and the story, though it crosses decades, reamains easy and interesting to follow through its 3.5 hours. There are many clever milemarkers across the years, from fashion to historic events to movie titles. And, through it all, the growth and shift of the characters.

Robert De Niro (Joker) is at the center of it all. It is his story we experience; the world through his eyes. Joe Pesci (Love Ranch) and Al Pacino (Danny Collins) create the additional focal points of the tension in the story as the three men each exert influence. There are dozens of other great smaller roles, some nearly silent such as Anna Paquin’s (Furlough) powerful turn as De Niro’s daughter.

This is definitely in contention for Scorsese’s best so far. His control of the scope, the handling of the performances, and the execution of the final edit are all lessons in brilliance. He manages to infer much more than is ever there, avoiding a lot (though not all) of the extreme violence in his previous movies about organized crime. And that is probably its greatest aspect of success. All of those issues and ideas are there, but they aren’t the focus despite the purile allure it might have exerted on lesser directors.

Irishman is also a showcase for technology, particularly de-aging, in a way that is jaw-dropping. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci evolve through decades, though often in counter to their current realities. But, if you didn’t know that, you’d never spot the fantasy the digital work and make-up have wrought.

The Irishman, despite all the hoopla and arguments over its theatrical release versus streaming, or Scorsese’s narrow minded thinking about modern stories, such as superheroes, and despite its lack of diverstity (in large part due to the realities of the subjects and era), is a new and instant classic. Find a day to carve out the hours needed and tuck in for a great ride.